Astros 5, Braves 4

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ATLANTA (AP)—Andy Pettitte was relaxing about 3:15 p.m. Saturday when Houston manager Phil Garner walked up with a look that told Pettitte everything: It would be up to the veteran left-hander—on short rest and short notice—to preserve the Astros’ playoff hopes.

“The way he looked at me, I knew something was up,” Pettitte said of the unexpected meeting with Garner. “(The game) was mine.”

Pettitte came through on three days’ rest, giving up one run in seven innings, and pinch-hitter Orlando Palmeiro’s single drove in the tiebreaking run in Houston’s three-run ninth to give the Astros a 5-4 win over the Atlanta Braves on Saturday night.

“Andy pitched a great game; he’s one of the best clutch pitchers around,” said Houston’s Lance Berkman.

The Astros survived in the bottom of the ninth as the Braves scored two runs off relievers Brad Lidge and Dan Wheeler.

Pettitte was scheduled to pitch Sunday, but now that assignment goes to rookie Chris Sampson. Pettitte allowed only four hits in seven innings and left with a 2-1 lead.

“He was brilliant, just brilliant,” Garner said. “He just did a superb job.”

Adam LaRoche hit reliever Trever Miller’s first pitch in the eighth inning for a game-tying home run to right field.

The Astros answered quickly in the ninth with help from the two errors by the Braves. Brad Ausmus’ sharp grounder off Braves closer Bob Wickman (0-2) bounced past second baseman Marcus Giles for the first error. Pinch-hitter Chris Burke followed with an infield single to third base, and Ausmus advanced to third on Chipper Jones’ throw to first.

Palmeiro’s single to right drove in Ausmus for a 3-2 lead.

“In order to win games, you have to have your share of the breaks,” Palmeiro said after tying the Houston record with his 20th pinch-hit of the season.

Palmeiro was forced out at second on Mike Lamb’s fielder’s choice grounder. Lance Berkman followed with a grounder to shortstop Edgar Renteria, whose throw to second base sailed into right field as Burke scored from third and Lamb from first. All three runs in the inning were unearned.

Miller (2-3) gave up one run in one inning. Wheeler gave up RBI singles to Brian McCann and Daryle Ward before striking out LaRoche for his ninth save in 12 chances.

“Nerve-wracking,” Garner said. “My goodness, I tell you we can’t do things the easy way.”

Berkman and Aubrey Huff homered for Houston, which faces another must-win game Sunday. However, the Astros also need a loss by St. Louis to preserve their playoff hopes.

After the Cardinals beat Milwaukee 3-2 earlier Saturday, Houston had to beat Atlanta to avoid being eliminated from the NL Central Division race. Houston is 1 1/2 games behind St. Louis.

If Houston wins and St. Louis loses Sunday, the Cardinals would be forced to play a makeup game against San Francisco Monday. A St. Louis loss in that game would force a one-game playoff Tuesday between the Astros and Cardinals for the division title.

“We’ve been in a must-win situation for quite a while now,” Garner said.

Said Pettitte: “We’re very thankful to have the opportunity to win tomorrow and hopefully the Cardinals will lose and make things interesting.”

The Braves, who will start John Smoltz on Sunday, recognize they are playing a desperate team.

“Having to beat Smoltzie, the way we’re playing right now and having to rely on St. Louis to lose two games, it’s looking bleak for them,” Atlanta’s Chipper Jones said. “But funnier things have happened.”

Despite his short rest, Pettitte looked strong as he gave up only one run and struck out seven batters. He opened with four perfect innings until Andruw Jones’ leadoff single in the fifth. Pettitte was assisted by the free-swinging Braves batters. He threw only six pitches in the first inning and only 79 pitches through seven innings.

Braves starter Lance Cormier gave up a long homer to Berkman in the first inning. The Atlanta bullpen was up after Cormier loaded the bases on singles by Luke Scott and Huff and a walk to Craig Biggio, but Adam Everett’s fly ball to right ended the inning.

Berkman’s 45th homer landed near an outfield restaurant sign that shows the distance from home plate to be 452 feet.

Huff’s 12th homer to center in the sixth inning gave Houston a 2-0 lead.

LaRoche walked to lead off the sixth, moved to third on a single to right by Willy Aybar and scored when Marcus Giles pushed a sacrifice bunt toward first base, cutting the lead to 2-1.

Despite the rough first inning, Cormier lasted 5 1-3 innings, giving up eight hits and two runs. ^Notes: Craig Biggio was caught stealing in the sixth inning for only the second time in five attempts this season. … Berkman’s 135 RBIs matches Jeff Bagwell’s team record set in 1997. Berkman’s 45 homers are the second-highest total in team history, trailing Bagwell’s 47 in 2000. … Berkman dropped a pop foul hit by pinch-hitter Chipper Jones in the eighth inning for an error.

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